Recently, I admitted to a new friend that I have never read the Harry Potter books. This friend gasped astonishingly, asking with slightly-squinting eyes, “And you call yourself a nerd?”
With all the all-encompassing terms and associations for geekdom flying around these days, it’s hard to always fit the mold. I’ve never been drawn to fantasy, which to others in my nerd circles seems to be at odds with my great enthusiasm for science and speculative fiction (SF*).
Growing up, before geek was chic, the sort of nuanced appraisal my friend above made was not commonplace. All geeks were equally harassed regardless of interest. Thus putting thought into defining the distinction between science fiction and fantasy to the masses was unnecessary because no one cared to listen. My nerdy friends and I just bound together in our joint alienation.
Nowadays, this distinction is something I often find myself having to account for when explaining the holes in my pop-culture geek knowledge. Facing the inevitable disbelief and disappointment when I am unable to live up to the platonic ideal of the geek for my brethren is different but equally as taxing as the harassment I received as a kid. Over time, I’ve had to tease out in my head what it is about SF in particular that speaks to me over fantasy, so that I can present my views to my geek tribe, and simultaneously proselytize the greatness of SF to the uninitiated. Why is it that I love SF and feel that you should too?
And here’s what I’ve come up with.
Speaking broadly and generally, the fantasy genre never resonated with me because it’s the story of binary oppositions. It’s stories of good versus evil, drawing from the tradition of the epic or the medieval morality play. Sometimes the good guys win, sometimes they lose, sometimes they have crises of faith, sometimes they’re corrupted, sometimes the good guys are actually the bad guys, but it comes down to distinct lines of ethics and morality, and it’s always clear there is someone or something to root for and against. These are stories of moral guidance, codes for behavior, that communicate how one should behave and if they don’t, well, there will be consequences. It’s not surprising that two of the most famous and well-read fantasy series, the Chronicles of Narnia and the Lord of the Rings, are Christian allegories. And I’m not saying there isn’t any value in this type of story, but for me, it’s limited. I can’t relate to the characters or their struggles except on the most basic level. The lessons are too absolute and the characters too one-dimensional and idealized. Even one of my favorite fantasy series, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, wherein part of the intention is to interrogate this religious allegorical structure of the genre, can’t help itself falling into the same tropes. It’s all just too black and white to reflect my experience of being human. I acknowledge that this is a broad brushstroke across a vast genre, but these are the trends that have always turned me off.
SF on the other hand tends to lean more toward a nuanced and philosophical presentation of humanity. SF stories generally operate by taking people and placing them in a new and alien context, often in a sort of distorted or enhanced mirror of our current world and situation. By taking the familiar and placing it in a foreign context (a faraway planet, a future technologically-advanced society, etc.), the familiar is poised to react to the foreign, and thus present a picture of its humanity through contrast or comparison. Philosophical inquiries such as why we are the way we are, why we act a certain way, and what will happen if we continue to do the things we do are often the driving force of SF stories.
Looking to Star Trek as a broadly-known example, in each of the first three series, there is a character that calls into question what it is to be human (Spock, Data, Odo). Throughout each series, one of these characters acts as a foil to all the humanoids who take for granted their humanity. This is an avenue for the human characters to reflect on the meaning of their humanity, while each nonhumanoid carries out his own journey of self-exploration. This contrast brings the essence of humanity, for better or worse, to the forefront. Stanislav Lem’s brilliant novella, Solaris, is another great and distinctly different example of this. The main character is a psychologist sent to retrieve the last few remaining staff on a space station orbiting this strange distant planet. It turns out that the planet somehow is creating physical manifestations of their psychological baggage for an unknown and inaccessible reason. Without a tangible other or approachable explanation, the reader are forced to instead examine the psychological condition of the human characters. The overall proposition being that the further we look outward, the more we can’t escape our own skin.
So how is this different from any other fiction? I believe it is the power of the otherness component that makes SF special. Works of SF have historically made some controversial and biting social and political critiques, and they are able to do so blatantly because of the alien context. It’s no fluke that the first interracial kiss on American television happened on Star Trek. The futuristic setting offers a vaguely-shaded roundabout for social commentary–commentary that doesn’t go unnoticed. Nichelle Nichols, who almost quit Star Trek and her role as Uhura after the first season, went to a freedom riders rally while she was thinking over her decision. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. approached her there, describing himself as a “trekkie,” and told her that the most important thing she could do for the civil rights cause was to stay on the show. No really, this happened. SF is powerful like that. Around the same time, Rod Serling, the creator of the Twilight Zone, was outspoken in promoting television as a medium for thoughtful critique and engagement. How did he choose to make his own powerful critiques about xenophobia, fear-mongering, government lapses in morality, and other cold war ethics topics? Through SF vignettes. These are just a couple examples of many that address the political and social power of the genre.
SF even has the ability to even be greater than its own community. Samuel Delaney, a new wave SF writer who is also black, gay, and a professor of comparative literature, often speaks of his early times in the SF community. He now chuckles at the fact that early in his career before he was “out,” the SF community was socially very homophobic, but still granted him awards and recognition for his work that blatantly dealt with sexuality, gender, and sexual orientation issues. That’s the freedom and progressive opportunity that SF provides. Social justice and gender issues have for a long time had a home in science fiction. Both Margaret Atwood’s and Olivia Butler’s SF work, for example, has made great impact on women’s and gender studies. While once, and still to some degree, considered a “boy’s club,” the SF world continues to acknowledge the power of these contributions.
There is a stereotype of sci-fi geeks as escapists, and while this may be true to a degree, I would argue that unlike fantasy works, the worlds and intent of SF are very much tied to our own world. Science and speculative fiction offer a powerful approach to self and social introspection and interrogation, to the mess that is the human race.
And this is the universal appeal. This is why SF matters.
For as long as the genre has existed, it has created a safe space for meditation, speculation, and interrogation. SF works ask the hard questions that, in some cases, cannot be asked freely or more directly in any other space without dire social and/or political consequences. It is a genre for the progressive and the sceptic, the philosopher and the dreamer.
This is why I am proud to call myself a sci-fi geek, and will continue to look to the stars.*For this piece, I use the term “SF” to encompass both speculative and science fiction, which are often lumped together. I will let Margaret Atwood describe the distinction: “The distinction has to do with lineages. It has to do with ancestries, and what family books belong to because books do belong in families. The ancestor of science fiction is H. G. Wells with books like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds. Those books involved things that are very unlikely to happen or are actually impossible, but they are ways of exploring possibilities and human nature and the way people react to certain things. And if you go to another planet, you get to build the whole society and you can draw blueprints and have fun with talking vegetation and other such things. The lineage of speculative fiction traces back to Jules Verne, who wrote about things that he could see coming to pass that were possible on the Earth–this wasn’t about outer space or space invasions–but things that we could actually do.” -From an interview in Progressive, December 2010.